“Let’s not look at each other as competition, the more we grow, the less imports there will be!”
Matija Brinjak, 29, started out as a medical technician. This year he will harvest his third crop of strawberries. He will also add vegetables to his rotation. Here is the story of a first generation farmer in Veliki Banovac, Croatia.
In his small village, Veliki Banovac, in the vicinity of Pakrac, Matija Brinjak is the only farmer that grows fruit. Without any experience he started growing strawberries. He financed everything with his own funds, and the effort invested in strawberries paid off in the first harvest. The young farmer harvested 2 tons of sweet fruits. This year, he is expanding production to watermelon and lettuce, and his plans are not over.
“If someone had told me ten years ago that I would be farming, I would have answered ‘no way.’ Now I’m growing fruits and vegetables on my open-air farm, ”says Matija.
In his family, Matija is the first generation of farmers, as he puts it, “the one who broke the ice.” Although employed by the Inclusion Promotion Association in Pakrac, Matija fell in love with outdoor produce two years ago when he decided to try fruit growing.
The yield of two tonnes of strawberries exceeded expectations
“In late 2017, I opened a small family farm, and in the spring of 2018, I planted the first 4,000 strawberry seedlings. Although strawberries are planted in mid-August, I decided to experiment with spring planting and planted Clery and Joly strawberries in early April. Already after 60 days I had my first harvest. The yield was 250 kg of strawberries, which exceeded my expectations as it is known that strawberries have to be well rooted first. “The first year I only irrigated the soil, without adding nutrition,” recalls Matija. The first steps were difficult for Matija because he lacked experience and knowledge. Next to running the farm, he spent a lot of time seeking expert advice and learning the trade. The hard work payed off, last year the Matija family farm had their first real strawberry harvest.
“Considering the number of seedlings and the weather conditions being extremely unfavourable for strawberries, I am more than pleased with last year’s crop. We picked 1,600 kg of first class strawberries and 400 kg of second class strawberries. This is a great yield from an area of 2,000 square meters. We planted eight rows, each 85 meters long, almost 700 meters of total length,” says the young farmer. Next to the strawberries, Matija is tackling new challenges this year.
Watermelons in western Slavonia
“Strawberries remain our most important crop, but we are looking in to expanding our crops. We will try our luck with growing watermelons and lettuce. We plan to continue to increase production, but in a context where we can do all the work within the family, ”says Matija, whose wife, parents and brother work at the farm. During harvest season, there are always two to three extra pairs of hands to help .
They do not plan to hire workers for now. They started the whole business with their own funds, which, says Matija, was a big amount, so it will take time some time to see the return on their investment.
“Since I do not have enough arable land or a sufficient number of seedlings, I am not eligible to apply for any of the measures in the Rural Development Program. So everything I do, I finance myself. Fencing and securing the field was a big part of the investment. Next to that, I bought low tunnels, plastic foil, the strawberry plants and other materials needed to start our farm. At the end, the amount I put in starting our operation went up to several thousands of euros,” says Matija.
Fresh strawberries straight from the farm
Although many farmers complain that selling products directly from the field or farm is a problem, Matija thinks otherwise.
“Strawberries are a beloved fruit, everything I produce, I sell at my doorstep. Often there is only 2 hours between picking the strawberries and selling them to the customer. The fruits can mature on the plants, instead of being picked in a green state and ripened in big storage facilities.”
Growing fruits and vegetables in open air comes with one big disadvantage. As a farmer, you can’t control the weather. Matija is looking into growing strawberries in a greenhouse to avoid bad weather conditions. This spring he invested in a 90 square meter greenhouse in which he will grow Clery strawberry plants, an early producing variety. “The greenhouse will contain at least 2.000 strawberry plants, planted in gutters and watered using drip irrigation. I also want to invest in another smaller greenhouse of about 70 square meters for lettuce, peppers and tomatoes,” explains Matija. The investment is planned in steps, due to the amount of money that is needed.
The ultimate goal, he says, is an annual production of 2,500 kg of strawberries using 5,000 strawberry plants, 2,500 kg of watermelon and 500 kg of lettuce grown outdoors.
“If my finances allow me to increase production, I think of greenhouse production in the first place because outdoor production is too much of a risk,” says the young farmer. He proudly points out that young people do not leave his small town. Within one kilometre there are 5 to 6 family farms active in the town of Veliki Banovac.
“Most farmers from this area are engaged in arable farming. For now, I am the only one who is growing fruit, and as of this year, also in vegetable growing. If there are farmers who want to experiment with growing strawberries, they are free to contact me for tips. I spent a year collecting information and learning and I would to share my knowledge with colleagues,” he says.
Own produce above imports
When moving into this business, Matija visited a dozen farms to obtain at least some useful information, advice or guidance through conversations with seasoned growers, but did not find any goodwill.
“I had a hard time getting the information, so I had to learn almost everything myself. I want such a bad relationship between domestic farmers to change. We do not need to look at each other as competition because the more quality our own farmers grow, the less imported products will be on the market. Lower prices for imported fruits and vegetables are not always a draw for customers. For example, last season strawberries were sold at retail chains at a price of 10 kuna per kilogram (€1,34/kg), while the price of my strawberries was 25 kuna (€3,34/kg). Still, everyone who tried them became loyal customers, who are coming back for more,” says Matija. The difference between strawberries picked 14 days ago, while still green, and matured in cold storage and homegrown, fresh strawberry picked 2 hours ago is incomparable, and customers taste the difference. That’s why they are coming back to Matija’s farm. According to Matija, the price of fruits and vegetables is a much less important factor than quality.
EU help is needed
For Matija, publicity is an important issue. Although he sells all of his harvest in the booth in front of his house, a larger reach would mean more opportunities to sell. As his farm is to small to qualify for EU funding the young farmer wonders if the EU has no other possibilities to help small farmers like himself. A possibility would be more hands-down help like publicity campaigns for local fruits and vegetables or a network to spread knowledge.
“I started out with nothing but my own money, no bank loans or EU funding. This make me vulnerable. I gathered quite some knowledge during the previous years but in the end, if I run out of money, I will have to stop with my small farm”, Matija explains. “I understand that large corporations have easier access to funding because they have a team of lawyers working for them, but eventually it’s young farmers like me that provide a future for the rural areas in Europe.”
Matija Brinjak (29) is a young farmer in Veliki Banovac, in the vicinity of Pakrac, Croatia. 3 years ago he started growing strawberries, this year he will also be growing lettuce and watermelons. He farms on 1,2 hectares of sloping ground. Together with his family he harvested 2,5 ton of strawberries last year, all of which are sold at their doorstep. The young farmer is planning to invest in greenhouses to reduce the risk of bad weather on his crops.
You can follow Matija on Facebook
Images: Matija Brinjak
This article appeared in Farmers of Europe Magazine nbr. 1.